In last week’s Economist (13-19 February, 2021) Bartleby gives us a month by month set of memories of the past year. As if we ourselves hadn’t already lived through it.

The thing is, memories of learning Zoom etiquette and how to mute ourselves and others in meetings ceased being funny a long time ago. The sameness of days working from home has long since ceased to be news, and the columnist pointing to June as the month when we started feeling ‘Groundhog Day Syndrome’ doesn’t make it any more ancient history.

Canceled holidays and the rollercoaster of lockdowns followed by eased restrictions followed by more lockdowns – well, almost all readers of the Economist know what that’s like. And we’re all suffering from the continued effects of the entitled thinking that a period eased restrictions means that the world with Covid is actually safer. The fact that we’re still dealing with this shit means that we as an office-dwelling species don’t get it and never have gotten it. I’m not the first to say that eased restrictions means there’s room in the ER or A&E for you.

I have expat friends who have long complained that a large segment of the population of this country don’t wash their hands. A survey in May (well into the pandemic) indicated that half the Dutch hadn’t gotten the message. Have they yet? Who knows? But our infection numbers go reliably up when restrictions are eased and reliably down when they’re not.

I got on my high horse at the beginning of this thing and said (only to my wife who pays for the Economist subscription and understands the nature of the system far better than I do, and alluded to it on this blog) that the only way to conquer this thing was to go on a war footing, put in the restrictions and move manufacturing to getting PPE and support to medical staff. ‘Yes, the economy will take a hit, but then we can get back up and moving again.’

But I don’t understand human nature any better than anyone else. I know I still forget a mask sometimes and feel ridiculous about going back for one, but I bloody well do it. I don’t understand the refusal of our societies to support the front line folks first (medical, educational, retail). I don’t understand why there’s a question about how quickly to vaccinate teachers, nurses, and supermarket workers. If I did, I’d be an economist or a financier, and not a tech writer.

I wasn’t the first to note that DJT would have won the election had he lifted one finger to handle the pandemic with sense and reliance on experts. Is there a blessing in the fact that he didn’t and is therefore no longer president (his own rants notwithstanding)? I don’t know. Half a million dead in the US might prefer that he’d just once acted in the interest of the country and not his own. But because he couldn’t, here we are.

The Economist column concludes with the suggestion, ‘Perhaps at some point in 2021 Bartleby will be back on the London Underground, crammed like a sardine while waiting for the platform to clear at Earl’s Court. Suddenly social isolation doesn’t seem so bad after all.’

For much of the working world, the thought of being on a crowded commuter platform (or movie theatre or concert or fast-food joint or anywhere else that keeping distance is rendered impossible) isn’t a point of humor but the opening salvo of an anxiety attack. For another large part of the working world, that anxiety and the associated Covid risk are facts of life that won’t be letting up any time soon.

After the minor MTV hit that was Mexican Radio, Stan Ridgway left Wall of Voodoo and a couple of years later released his first solo album, 1983’s The Big Heat on IRS Records, the same label that had released Wall of Voodoo’s first three releases. I’m sure I have wonderful things to say about that album. I wore out the grooves on my cassette of it, for certain. In 1989, Ridgway moved to Geffen Records for his second solo album, Mosquitos, a copy of which has found its way to me for the first time in about 20 years. And it holds up. His music always had the feel of the best noir fiction and musically he pulls on the same devices that make up the atmospheres of Dashiell Hammett novels and Bogart movies.

Thematically, Mosquitos works over the same characters, low-lifes with pessimistic outlooks (Can’t Complain) and guys who think the girl is in it for them (Peg and Pete and Me).

In general the whole album is of a piece. Some of it upbeat (Goin’ Southbound, the aforementioned Last Honest Man), some of it more atmospheric (bookends Heat Takes a Walk/Lonely Town and A Mission In Life). 1989 was a weird year, though, for this kind of album. Two years later, he made his last album for the majors, Partyball. Alas, Geffen put out the made-for-Doctor-Demento track I Wanna Be A Boss as the first single. And people who’d followed Ridgway for a few years said, What the hell?

He continues to make great music, but fell off the radar for me at that point. It might be a case of those being the albums I heard when I was that impressionable age. But I absolutely recommend all three of those first solo albums.

While Mosquitos isn’t available on Bandcamp, there’s a veritable scad of Ridgway goodies (including live recordings from the period) available his BC page.

Discogs links: The Big Heat / Mosquitos / Partyball

The topic of this Chomsky quote is very much on my mind these days. It’s not an original thought to say that in the US we have a fascistic party (the one we keep calling the Republican Party, though their behaviour in the last 12 years at least would horrify such stalwarts as Eisenhower, and, heck, even Reagan and Nixon), a right-wing party whose interest are aligned with the financial industry and what used to be law and order (formerly the Democratic Party), and a budding medium left-wing party of folks like Bernie and AOC.

About that middle point: If the Democrats aren’t the party of the finance industry, why was their VP choice in 2008 (the year the financial industry screwed over working Americans in very large numbers) the man who was rightly accused of representing MBNA and Citicorp rather than the people of Delaware? (Note that the state of Delaware has such lax banking laws that many banks use post office boxes there as their corporate addresses.) If Democrats aren’t the party of law and order, why is it that in a year that saw massive uprisings against more and more flagrant police brutality the Democrats’ VP choice was the former California AG and San Francisco DA who has a long record of siding with the police over the citizenry of the City and then the state.

I’d love to support a left-wing party in the US, but we don’t have one right now, so I’ll support Nancy Pelosi and the other conservatives over the fascists when that’s the choice for getting the fascists out of the way. The problem, of course, is that getting rid of fascism is more complicated than that. In my fantasies every one who was part of that deadly idiocy at the capitol on January 6th would be tried for sedition. Ditto for all of the members of Congress and the Senate who played along. I don’t see that happening, especially the latter.

On yesterday’s Stay Tuned With Preet, Preet Bharara interviewed David Frum, a conservative from way back who was a speechwriter for George W. Bush and an advisor to Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign. As far back as 1994, however, he’s written about the problems of supply-side economics and evangelicals.

Frum’s views evolved to be pro same-sex marriage, and he’s pro-gun control (and, yeah, I’m getting a lot of my info about him from his Wikipedia page, but I’ve listened to him on Left, Right and Center for years. These views aren’t new for him). Despite misgivings about Palin, he voted for McCain in 2008, and has distanced himself from the party since the craziness that ensued after Obama was elected.

That said, in a way he’s putting his money where his mouth is as part of a group of classic Republicans (aka fiscal and tangentially social bootstrap conservatives) who are trying to form a new Republican party. As you might guess, I find these efforts attractive on a certain level, but what precisely is the goal? Reclaiming the party of Lincoln or the party of Reagan? If you support gun control and marriage equality and fiscal responsibility, why isn’t the current iteration of the Democratic Party doing it for you? Is a minimum wage that a person can live on too much? Was Eisenhower too much of a lefty? Is healthcare that doesn’t drive a person to bankruptcy with one accident or one out of plan ambulance call too much to ask? National parks (Thanks, Teddy Roosevelt, another Republican) that aren’t sold to the highest (if the treasury is lucky) bidder for drilling rights? I’m failing to see which policies of the Democratic Party are too much.

Oh yeah, there’s the union question, of course. Unless it’s the police unions. Can’t step on those, can you?

I know the big target is abortion rights, and that it’s a step too far for a lot of people. I could take a big left turn and write the obvious article about how if you take care of things like birth control and sex education, and a few other things, the abortion rates plummet. That’s fodder for a different blog entry.

The need for another party or two or three in the US is not new, but it’s certainly a far more vital issue now than it has been in generations. I don’t see Frum’s efforts doing much to move the needle, but I’d be very happy if they did something to dilute the country’s burgeoning fascism.

(~850 words) This week’s Bartleby column, Network Effects (sorry, paywall), looks at corporate networking through the lens of Marissa King’s book Social Chemistry: Decoding the Elements of Human Connection. The upshot of the Bartleby column is that the ways people connect in the workplace are hard to categorise, but courtesy increases cooperation.

This week’s Laptops at the Ready column, The lockdown has helped Greece to digitise (also paywalled), discusses improvements in the Greek education system’s distance learning program. In a nutshell, Greece started this year with a deficit of distance learning capabilities on the parts of both students and teachers. The first school shutdown in March saw a distinction between maths and science teachers being prepared to move to digital learning while ‘some history and literature specialists without digital skills refused to cooperate.’ Being one of those liberal arts types who does have digital skills, this sort of statement has me itching to see the writer’s sources.

With pushes to distribute tools and skills more evenly, November’s lockdown tested a new online teaching system. ‘When a chaotic first session triggered a social-media storm of protests from angry parents, glitches were quickly smoothed out.’

And this is where the two articles collide for me. In the workplace, incivility creates a toxic environment. This applies both when the people interacting are peers and when there’s a power differential. Anecdote: Last week I was in a Slack chat with a colleague about a work matter. In the course of our chat, I expressed an opinion about a recent political event, thinking he would share my feelings. He responded that he felt differently and asked that we not discuss politics. It was a situation that could have been much more difficult, but wasn’t because he was civil and I backed off. I would have backed off had he not been civil, but it would have strained on our ability to work together.

Much like the assertion regarding humanities teachers’ resistance to change, I want more supporting data on the chaos of the first sessions in November and the social media storm of protest. What both of these pieces suggest (especially in the context of recent events and the ease with which one can anger and be angered when we’re not looking at the people we’re talking or listening to) is that we benefit more from being nice. I wish I could be more sociopolitical when I say things like this. Wrap it in something that says how much it is in your/my/our self-interest as individuals to be nice to one another. But this is not that blog.

Greek parents who hopped onto social media to protest problems in a new system might have been effective in one or two definitions of the problem at hand. When a child’s room is dirty and a parent yells at him, he cleans his room and the parent is no longer angry at the state of his room. It’s not indicative of effective communications between parents, administrators, students, and teachers (or between parents and children, says Mr. Childless here). In the moment yelling seems to work. Whatever problems the new education system faced weren’t solved by the yelling. Developers, systems administrators, technical writers addressed the bugs at the software, network, and documentation level, and teachers were able to do their jobs. Problems that were apparent the moment it went online may not have been apparent before a million and a half students and teachers logged on at the same time. Inviting anger and agitation on social media put pressure on those IT people, but it didn’t smooth out or solve the problems.

What all that protest did do was make it more difficult for the participants in the discussion to communicate without rancor in the future. This isn’t the only parents vs. school system argument I’ve read about recently. There seems to be a vested interest (in some circles) in portraying teachers and schools administrators as somehow having far more power (and free time) than they do in reality. There’s another discussion that covers who has more power, input, and influence in the circle of people and institutions that make up a school district. What is of interest is how the players perceive their own power. Near the end of his column, Bartleby writes, ‘Ms. King invokes the aphorism that “assholes can be identified by observing how they treat people with less power.”‘ In that same discussion, perhaps we can talk about how people who perceive themselves as powerless treat people who probably don’t have any more power.

In business and society, we form networks with others and belong to some networks by virtue of certain relationships. I belong to networks of colleagues I didn’t hire and networks of friends I choose. Parents belong to networks involving schools they don’t necessarily choose, but they belong to those networks nonetheless. The degrees to which we are active in these networks may vary, but courtesy makes everyone’s participation in the networks more effective. Bartleby’s conclusion: ‘”Don’t be an asshole” is not a scientific statement, but it is still a pretty good management motto,’ applies to these other relationships as well.

Image source: https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/how-will-coronavirus-school-closures-affect-americas-children-136602

So my desire this year was to read more books by women and non-binary writers. This doesn’t mean that I’d be focused on literary fiction necessarily, and I read very little. I’ve been getting newsletters from Tor books (sign up here) for a while and taking them up on the occasional freebie and this guided most of my reading this year. Meaning a lot of SF and fantasy. Occasionally I’d pick something recommended by The Writer’s Almanac. And for some reason I reread Virgina Woolf’s Orlando and was far less impressed with it than I was 25 years ago.

I have several new favouite authors whose works I hadn’t known of before this year. Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series is probably my favourite new writing. She’s created a version of the future with fantastic non-terrestrial but marvelously human characters to interact with superb earth-descended folks. Of the three novels so far published in the series (fourth and final due in February), the one that touched me the most was A Closed and Common Orbit.

Nnedi Okorafor‘s Binti series is only my second or third encounter with Afrofuturism (Black Panther and the Parable novels by Octavia Butler being the others) and I found it intriguing and fascinating and beautiful. While I’m now caught up with Chambers’ work, Okorafor has been prolific. I’m not quite sure where I’ll go next.

I’m going to have the same problem with Mary Robinette Kowal. Her Lady Astronaut series posits a US space program that begins of necessity in the 1950s due to a meteor striking the eastern seaboard. Our main character was a pilot in WW2 and has to fight her way into the space program. In the first two books we have this great combination of hard science and the realities of sexism and racism in mid-century America. I read the first two volumes of the series (The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky). The Relentless Moon is waiting for the new year. And, again, she’s prolific, with eight other novels and a scad of short stories waiting for me as well.

A.E. Warren’s Tomorrow’s Ancestors series, posits a future in which supposedly more advanced humans have not quite enslaved Homo Sapiens, but they keep Sapiens down in retribution for the ills and wars they created. The situation is a lot more complicated, but our teen hero Elise teams up with both cloned neanderthals and more advanced humans to seek out a new future. The Museum of Second Chances and The Base of Reflections are out now and are really good. (Note: these books will be reissued next year. The Museum of Second Chances has a new title: Subject Twenty-One.)

I’ve also really enjoyed the first three books in Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries. Our (anti-) hero is a SecUnit (a kind of cyborg guard/gun for hire who should be under the control of The Company, but they’ve managed to hack their own governor module and can roam free. All Murderbot really wants is time to enjoy soap operas and other downloaded entertainment, but there are mysteries to solve first. I enjoyed All Systems Red and Artificial Condition (Murderbot 1 and 2) more than Rogue Protocol (#3) but I’m hoping that’s a glitch and that books 4, 5, and 6 will be better.

J.Y. (Neon) Yang’s Tensorate series has a promising start. The twin offspring of the Protector are raised in a monastery and eventually learn that one is a prophet of sorts. In the world of the stories, one doesn’t choose one’s sex until age 18 or so. Eventually they join the rebellion against the Protector. For relatively short novels, they’re really hard to summarise but very beautiful. Yang drops us somewhat in the deep end with the technologies of the stories’ world, but it’s well worth riding out. Start with The Black Tides of Heaven and continue with The Red Threads of Fortune. Black Tides is included in Tor’s free anthology, Fantasy from Asia and the Asian Diaspora.

I think my favourite read of the year was This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Two characters fighting on opposing sides of the titular war leave eachother messages on their various battlefields and eventually fall in love. And it’s so much more complicated and beautiful than that. The ending comes much too soon. A couple of years ago, my friend Jeff recommended Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, which at the time was a whole lot of money for little cash for the kindle, so I bought and it sat in the queue. After Time War, I read the first book in the sequence, Three Parts Dead, which is also quite good. I look forward to getting to more of that in the new year.

Another near-perfect book is Silvia Moreno-Garcia‘s Signal to Noise. The story is of a trio of misfit teenagers in late 80s Mexico City who discover a sort of magic. Various tensions tear the trio apart. Our protagonist, Meche, moves to Norway after high school, but returns in 2009 for her father’s funeral. And the stories run in tandem until we learn the various secrets everyone has held. On the one hand, it’s a fairly straight up romance with a smidge of the supernatural. On the other hand, the writing is magical all on its own. And Moreno-Garcia, who I’d never previously heard of, has seven other novels and a bunch of short stories. And her MA thesis is on the work of HP Lovecraft.

And most recently, I’ve finished the first book in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, Every Heart A Doorway. Book 6 (of what I hear will be 10) in the series comes out in January or February and Tor offered the first five for free for one day each a couple of weeks ago. I thought on day 1 that there had been a mistake, because I had book two in my download folder. I pinged tor.com on Twitter and the author tweeted me back very quickly, but not before I’d figured out that I had book two from a previous giveaway and I’d downloaded book one into the wrong folder. Anyway, Seanan McGuire is really nice on the tweetbox. Every Heart A Doorway is a slightly creepy and very beautiful story of children who have all found doorways to other worlds, but for whatever reason had to come back to this reality and deal with all of the consequences. And in the midst of a new arrival’s first week, there’s a murder. And so there’s a nifty sort of Agatha Christie story to tell as well. And not only are there four more in this series immediately available and one preordered, McGuire has published a couple dozen other novels and a lot of short stories. And five albums of music which are currently out of print, though there’s a rumour at least one is coming back out.